Just Above Sunset
August 1, 2004: Social Darwinism as seen from Pasadena

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In Cain’s Question in this issue I briefly mentioned a conversation I had with a good friend of mine who is a conservative Republican.  We had been talking about particular laws we have here in this country that are explicitly intended to make life more fair.  And as I said, my conservative friend told me all these laws about fairness in hiring and education – all that civil right legislation that started with the 1964 Civil Right Act – were stupid.  His contention was that good people with ambition will rise to the top anyway.  They don’t need such laws.  And those who aren’t good people, who are not “assuming personal responsibility for their own lives,” then, because of such laws, end up feeling as if they ate entitled to stuff everyone else has to earn on his or her own.  It’s not fair.  In addition, such laws just hobble business and schools that want to be, simply, what they want to be, no matter what “big government” thinks they should be or says how they the think these business and schools should act – such laws take away their rights, to hire or admit whomever they want.  It’s not fair.

This is, as I see it, pretty simple Social Darwinism.  He says it’s not – and says some laws are clearly necessary, but they have horrible secondary consequences by creating this giant pool of people who feel they are entitled to some sort of free ride and learn that there is no advantage in doing anything for themselves.  Such laws help and hurt.  They offer some relief to a few who actually need help, and at the same time create a general culture of wining professional victims who take advantage of those who labor honestly and succeed.  He says this all started long before LBJ and the Civil Rights laws.  He said to me FDR did immeasurable harm to this country with Social Security and the WPA and all the stuff he started during the Great Depression.  Roosevelt was the man who really ruined America, and we’re still trying to recover.  I disagreed, and then we drank a lot more.  We’re still friends.

Well, unfortunately for my friend, this is the week for the return of Social Darwinism – as a topic for national discussion.

John Powers’ new book, “Sore Winners (And the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America,” is about to be published. (Doubleday - Hardcover - July 2004 - $24.95 - ISBN 0-385-51187-6)

Who is John Powers?  He’s deputy editor of LA Weekly.  He writes a weekly media/culture column called "On."  He is also critic-at-large for NPR's Fresh Air - and was interviewed on his new book there.  That Terry Gross interview from July 28 is here.  Powers has been the film critic for Vogue as well as an international correspondent for Gourmet.  He lives out here in Pasadena – not far from my conservative friend in Eagle Rock.

The world of book promotion being what it is, and given his current job, well, Powers gets the cover of this week’s LA Weekly.  Local boy makes good.

The item is a long excerpt from the new book.

Sore Winners (and the Rest of Us) in George Bush’s America
John Powers, LA Weekly, Issue of July 30 - August 5, 2004

The item gives a long history of Social Darwinism – with a discussion of key figures beyond Darwin himself, and is worth a read.  On the other hand, I rather like the details of history – who wrote what and who said what, and who said things back to them.  You may not.

Powers is, however, best when her talks about the here and now – and the emphases below are mine -


It’s long been part of our national self-image that Americans are Good Winners. When Yankee soldiers triumphed over Burgoyne’s army at the 1777 Battle of Saratoga, British prisoners were impressed by the victors’ polite silence — there was no gloating or jeering. When U.S. troops entered Germany after World War II, they didn’t indulge in an orgy of rape as did the Soviets but helped rebuild the country, winning a caricatured reputation for being beaming men with chocolate bars. And when the U.S. Olympic hockey team won its famous “Do you believe in miracles?” victory over the Soviets in Lake Placid in 1980, the players exulted in their triumph without getting in the Russians’ faces.

In truth, no country always behaves well in victory. Sometimes our Winners have been gentlemanly; at others, vulgar and ruthless. Just ask the foreign basketball players flattened by Charles Barkley at the Barcelona Olympics. During the heyday of Social Darwinism, capitalists worked people to death without the slightest qualm and made no apology for it — try to form a union and goons would come after you with clubs. Meanwhile, the rich exulted in their wealth. The delightfully named Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish held a 1904 dinner party in honor of her dog, which turned up in a $15,000 diamond collar at a time when the average annual income was $380. Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller explained his fortune to a Sunday school class by declaring, “God gave me the money.”

The Bush years may be the coarsest period in our nation’s history since those days. To my amazement, I sometimes find myself nostalgic for the comparatively modest ill manners of the Reagan years, when the U.S. invaded countries like Grenada and “Junk Bond King” Michael Milken was on the prowl. Today’s Winners don’t simply win, they win badly: bragging, sneering, lording it over the Losers, and promoting themselves with a crassness that would leave Duddy Kravitz blushing. When Hurricane Isabel knocks out the power in much of Washington, D.C., the Redskins’ billionaire owner doesn’t just get a huge generator to restore his own electricity but turns on all his lights, so that his house glows like the Vegas strip while his annoyed neighbors sit in the dark.

Practicing the “look out for yourself” philosophy preached in his books, Bill O’Reilly gloats about how many copies he’s sold, accuses critics of “envy,” and uses his media platforms to pitch his books and “The Spin Stops Here” tchotchkes. Seventeen-year-old hoops phenom LeBron James drives to high school in his $50,000 Hummer, not even bothering to pretend that he’s a regular student. And careerist wiseass Dennis Miller, who now embraces George W. Bush on CNBC, the better to kick the underdog, justifies a bellicose U.S. foreign policy by saying, “We are real good at what we do, and the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket. As that gap gets wider, they’ll hate us more and more and more. We are simultaneously the most hated, feared, loved and admired nation on this planet. In short, we are Frank Sinatra, and you know something, the Chairman didn’t get to be the Chairman lying down for punks outside the Fontainbleu.”

On the worst day of his life, Ol’ Blue Eyes, who grew up poor in Hoboken, was more idealistic about America than that.

Such Sore Winners aren’t simply found in the media. Now you find such thuggishness everywhere.


This all strikes me as about right – but I may be just grumpy because I’m one of the losers.  When the bottom of the Middle Class is marked by when you first earn over four hundred fifty thousand dollars a year, when Bush claims he’s just a poor, hard-working stiff like the rest of us, while having a net worth of nineteen million, well, I guess I have my sour grapes.  I’m outclassed.  Big time, to use Dick Cheney’s words.
But Powers says it’s not Bush, really.


… Such vaulting brutishness can’t be blamed on George W. Bush, but he’s done nothing to humble the Winners. He couldn’t be less like his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, no small egomaniac himself, who helped knock apart the Gilded Age because its ignobility gnawed at him: “Of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth.” The Bush administration is a veritable hive of Sore Winners, whether it’s the president scowling peevishly at questions that Reagan would have dispatched with a joke, the vice president sneering that energy conservation is no more than “personal virtue,” or Rummy treating everyone from reporters to generals as if they were no brighter than whelks. Nothing betrays such arrogance more than Republican big shots’ public boasts that the GOP is becoming the “natural” party of power — a norteño version of the PRI, the kleptocracy that ran Mexico for 71 years. They brag about placing Republicans in key lobbying slots of K Street, freezing out PACs that don’t ante up, and using congressional redistricting to ensure that the GOP keeps winning more seats. Such political hardball is hardly unprecedented. Although less ruthlessly, the Democrats played many of the same tricks for years. What’s new is how flagrantly Bush and his party flaunt tactics it was once thought politic to keep hidden. It’s no longer enough just to do these things, one must make a public meal of it.


Well, it is all a bit in-your-face.  But you need to know whether you are a winner, or a loser – and adopt the appropriate attitude.  That would be on one case a Yale frat-boy smirk, and in the other case your head hung low in shame.  As pope said – “Act well you part. Therein all honor lies.”

But Powers points out that like my friend in Eagle Rock, no one is admitting to any social Darwinism here -


Thanks to the Christian right, none of our politicians dares mention Darwin, except to say he shouldn’t be taught in schools. (“Religion has been around a lot longer than Darwin,” our president has noted helpfully.) Beyond that, the Winners’ agenda is now far harsher than it ever was under Nixon, whose social policies would strike today’s Republicans as downright socialist. The Bush administration has given the rich hundreds of billions in tax “relief,” while excluding millions of less favored Americans (including U.S. troops) from other forms of tax relief. Even as it gave $80,000 write-offs to businessmen who buy Humvees, it sought to change the Fair Labor Standards Act in a way that would cost countless hourly workers their overtime. Just redefine their work as administrative and the extra hours are free. Underlying such behavior is the president’s embrace of a philosophy (or, more accurately, an outlook) I call Populist Social Darwinism. Bush boasts about returning power to ordinary people — “We want to give you back your money” — then pursues policies that produce a class of highly visible Winners while unraveling the social safety net. Anytime you so much as mention this, you’re accused of waging class warfare.


Yep.  It is a neat trick.

And as someone who used to teach at an exclusive private prep school in upstate New York (and I went to public school), this caught my attention -


America is increasingly a country where Winners’ kids attend private schools and the Losers’ go to fading public ones, where Winners shop at specialty grocers and Losers buy their food at Wal-Mart, where Winners fly business or first class while Losers are stuck in economy sections and treated with flagrant, lunch-in-a-doggie-bag contempt, where Winners choose from a smorgasbord of jobs and Losers like Jessica Lynch enlist in the military because they couldn’t get a job at Wal-Mart. The chances of upward mobility have shrunk vastly in the last 30 years; BusinessWeek says the odds have dropped by 60 percent. In that same period, the richest 1 percent of the population has doubled its holdings. It now possesses as much as the bottom 40 percent, and the richest 13,000 families own as much as the poorest 20 million households. As Al Franken vividly put it, this is like Bemidji, Minnesota, having more income than all the residents of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Phoenix combined. While Bush didn’t create this situation, his policies are making the divisions far more extreme. He’s institutionalizing a New Gilded Age in which the state gives financial assistance to the very wealthy — Bill Gates personally saved $82 million in the first year of the dividend tax cut — while showing little concern for those who are not. What compassionate leader could preside over the loss of more than 2 million jobs — many among the middle class, whose positions have permanently moved abroad — and still be obsessed with cuts to the estate tax? In 2003, Bush racked up a $480 billion budget deficit while cutting programs like Head Start and AmeriCorps, the entire budget of which was only three times Gates’ dividend tax cut. Convinced of the inherent goodness of the free market — a religion he embraces more deeply than Christianity — he evidently thinks it normal for Winners to take what they want. The Losers be damned.


As they should be?  That is for the population to decide in the next election, or for the Supreme Court to decide if it comes down to that again, or for Diebold to decide.

I recommend the LA Weekly article.  If you have a spare twenty-five dollars, you could buy the book.  But that seems unlikely, unless you’re winner, and then why would you buy such a book anyway?


Late week footnote on winners and losers –

In the ongoing economic recovery, over the last two years, corporate profits have risen somewhere between seventeen and twenty-two percent, depending on the source of the data.  American businesses are finally doing well.


Real wages for American workers have, on average, dropped a bit over three percent in the last two years, adjusted for inflation.  So labor costs are way down – increasing profit margins.


Productivity – the number of hours worked for unit of net profit earned – is higher and higher.  We are more efficient. 


CEO compensation is at an all time high – nearing six hundred times that of the average worker in that particular CEO’s organization.  But that’s only a few people.


The number of Americans with no health insurance at all is now at forty-four million and rising rapidly – as, along with six to nine million unemployed, companies employing contract and temporary-to-hire workers with no benefits has allowed these businesses to prosper without the burden of such costs.  We are learning from such places as Spain, where fully one third of their work force is now working on a temporary contract basis with no benefits and no guarantee of ongoing employment, making businesses there much more profitable - and more nimble as they can add and shed workers immediately based on market needs and, at the same time, avoid paying costly benefits. 


A golden age.


New jobs actually are being created in America – not at a pace that keeps up with population growth, and, on average, paying about thirty percent less than the jobs that have been lost.  But there are jobs.  Of these new jobs a bit over twenty-eight percent of these jobs, by some accounts up to a third actually, are taken by non-citizens – janitorial and service levels jobs at minimum wage or less.  But there are new jobs.

From the IRS –

Americans' incomes fell for two years
Report: IRS data shows first-ever consecutive-year drop; loss of jobs blamed.
July 29, 2004: 11:04 AM EDT


NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Americans' overall income shrank for two consecutive years after stocks plunged in 2000, the first time that has effectively happened since the current tax system was put in place during World War II, according to a published report Thursday.
The New York Times, reporting data from the Internal Revenue Service, said gross income reported to the agency fell 5.1 percent to $6.0 trillion in 2002, the most recent year for which data is available, down from $6.35 trillion in 2000. Because of population growth, average income fell even more, by 5.7 percent, and adjusted for inflation the decline was 9.2 percent.

The paper said the decline was due to a combination of the big fall in the stock market and the loss of jobs and wages in well-paying industries as the recession started in 2001.

The paper said before the recent drop the last decline posted for even one year was 1953.

The drop in income has hit government tax collections -- the paper said individual income taxes declined 18.8 percent between 2000 and 2002. Part of that was due to tax cuts passed in 2001.

The report said the sharpest drops were in both the number and the earnings of people with the highest incomes. Those with incomes of $10 million or more saw average income fall 22 percent, while the number of returns reporting incomes at that level fell 53 percent during the two year period.

Meanwhile the average income of those filing returns with incomes between $25,000 and $500,000 saw the average income little changed, somewhere between a 0.1 percent decline and a 0.2 percent gain, depending upon the income category, the Times said.



Then there is this –

Jobless claims inch higher
Initial claims for unemployment insurance rise by 4,000, topping estimates of 340,000.
July 29, 2004: 8:34 AM EDT


NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The number of Americans filing for unemployment assistance inched up by 4,000, the government reported Thursday, coming in above economists' estimates.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance rose to 345,000 in the week ended July 24, up from a upwardly revised 341,000 the previous week, the Labor Department reported. Wall Street had expected 340,000 initial claims, according to Briefing.com.

The four-week moving average, which smoothes out weekly fluctuations in the number, came in at 336,250, down from a revised 337,250 the previous week.

Continued claims, or those people already receiving a week of assistance, rose to 2.96 million in the week ended July 17, the latest figures available, from a revised 2.79 million the previous week.


The recovery continues.

And this (a variation on “Let them eat cake.”) -

Unhappy Workers Should Take Prozac - Bush Campaigner
Thu Jul 29, 2004 01:50 PM ET


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A campaign worker for President Bush said on Thursday American workers unhappy with low-quality jobs should find new ones -- or pop a Prozac to make themselves feel better.

"Why don't they get new jobs if they're unhappy -- or go on Prozac?" said Susan Sheybani, an assistant to Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt.

The comment was apparently directed to a colleague who was transferring a phone call from a reporter asking about job quality, and who overheard the remark.

When told the Prozac comment had been overheard, Sheybani said: "Oh, I was just kidding."

While recent employment growth has buoyed Bush's economic record, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has argued the new jobs are not as good as those lost due to outsourcing in recent years.

Nearly 1.1 million jobs have been lost since Bush took office in January 2001.


Winners don’t have to take Prozac. 

What is Prozac?  Well, it’s quite for if you have panic disorder.

See this from the National Institute of Mental Health.  (Disclosure – my second father-in-law was head of the National Institute of Mental Health before he moved over to the Pentagon to work for Frank Carlucci as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs in the Reagan administration.)


Prozac (fluoxetine) is an antidepressant medication originally approved by the FDA in 1987 and currently available for the treatment of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bulimia nervosa. Prozac has also been used off-label (which means a use not reviewed by the FDA) to treat panic disorder. Under a different brand name (Sarafem), fluoxetine is also approved for the treatment of premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Prozac is believed to work by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin, a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger in the brain. It is a member of the serotonin-reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) family, as are Zoloft (sertraline) and Paxil (paroxetine).


All of these – Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil - are quite useful in the current cultural and political climate.

And this –

Back to work for less
Survey: 57% who lost full-time jobs 2001-2003 and found full-time work again are earning less.
July 30, 2004: 12:28 PM EDT


NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Judging from the latest government data, more than 50 percent of workers who lost or left full-time work between 2001 and 2003 and were lucky enough to have found another full-time job by this year were earning less than they used to.

From January 2001 through December 2003, 5.3 million long-tenured workers were displaced from full-time or part-time jobs they had held at least three years, according to a new report released Friday by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Displacement in this context is defined as a job that was lost or left because a plant or company closed or moved, there wasn't enough work to do or a position or shift was eliminated.

Among the long-tenured workers who were displaced, 65 percent had found either full-time or part-time work by January of this year, when the BLS survey was conducted. Another 20 percent were still unemployed and 15 percent were not in the labor force, meaning they said they had not looked for work in the four weeks prior to the survey.

But 57 percent of the group who had lost full-time jobs and found new full-time work reported that they were now earning less than what they earned in their old jobs. Indeed, about one-third of those with smaller paychecks were being paid at least 20 percent less.

…Among the long-tenured workers surveyed, 43 percent said plant or company closings or moves accounted for their displacement. Another 29 percent cited elimination of their position or shift. And 28 percent said there wasn't enough work to do.

Other highlights: Among industries, manufacturing accounted for 1.7 million long-tenured workers who were displaced -- or nearly a third of the total. Wholesale and retail trade accounted for 765,000 displaced workers, or 14 percent of all long-tenured displaced workers. Professional and business services accounted for 595,000 displaced workers, 11 percent of the group. The financial industry saw displacement of 355,000 long-term tenured workers, or nearly 7 percent of the group. Likewise education and health services, with a loss of 346,000 workers.


But profits are way up.  This IS a recovery.  You can’t argue with that.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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